A couple of subscribers (to News Items) have asked what I think will happen in Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia.
Answer: I think Glenn Youngkin, the Republican, will win in Virginia. I think New Jersey’s incumbent Democratic Governor, Phil Murphy, will be re-elected.
Obviously, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t have access to private polling data that might better inform my opinion. That said, you don’t really need private polling data to see what’s happening in both states. Democrats are panicked that they will lose in Virginia. Democrats are nervous that New Jersey might go south on them as well.
The tell is the volume of TV ads being beamed into both states that beseech Democrats to turn out to vote….. against Donald Trump. Or “Trumpism.” Or just the whole Trumpian oeuvre. There are days when it seems like the only thing Democrats have to say is “Beat Trump (again).”
You can understand why. It’s a message that has served them well for five years, all across the country, beginning with the Virginia gubernatorial race in 2017 and most recently in the California gubernatorial recall referendum. ‘“Beat Trump (again)” amplifies Democratic Party “base” turnout. It’s a force multiplier for the party’s fund-raising. The mainstream media relishes reporting on it, since Trump is steroidal click-bait. Most important, it binds the various factions of the Democratic Party coalition together. There is unanimous consent among them that beating the Trump oeuvre is both a noble cause and an essential task.
The question is whether “Beat Trump (again)” still does all of the above to the same degree. Specifically: Does it motivate the Democratic base the way it has in past elections? And: Does it resonate with so-called persuadable voters? The answer to those questions, in both Virginia and New Jersey, appears to be: “no, not as much as before.”
The problem with making every election a referendum on Trump is that voters (especially less partisan, “persuadable” voters) think elections are about them; their concerns, their communities, their states. Constantly being told that their elections are about Trump and not about them is at best annoying and, in extremis, insulting.
The second problem is that Trump-centric elections are socially fraught and emotionally exhausting. You never know when a passing remark about current events might quickly devolve into a political argument. Emotionally, Trump-centric politics are, in the words of one veteran political consultant, “trench warfare;” long on futility, short on hope.
Persuadable voters in Virginia and New Jersey are, no surprise, tired of it. They want their politics back. They want a post-Trump election. Their states rendered its verdicts on Trump in 2020. He was defeated in Virginia by 10 percentage points and in New Jersey by 16. Case closed.
Democrats re-opening a case they already won, night after night, day after day, on television, radio and social media, may be a key reason why Virginia is now a dead heat and why New Jersey is closer than anyone would have guessed two months ago.
This being modern American politics, there is, of course, a wild card. That would be Trump himself. Trump believes that all of American politics (that matters) is about him. He’s the sun, elections (that matter) are the planets, round and round they go. When he’s not the center of gravity and attention, and is largely ignored by an electorate in a state that matters, it’s inevitable that he will insist otherwise and perform stunts like this one.
From Bloomberg News:
Donald Trump plans to hold a tele-rally for Glenn Youngkin on Monday night, a day before the Virginia gubernatorial election and as Democrats, including President Joe Biden, seek to goad the former president into campaigning for the Republican candidate.
Youngkin has tight-roped between embracing the former president, while also keeping him at a distance. Trump on Wednesday teased the possibility that he would campaign in Virginia before the election but will do the tele-rally, typically a call with supporters to generate support for the candidate, according to a person familiar with his plans.
The rally comes as Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor running against Youngkin, a former co-chief executive officer of Carlyle Group Inc., has sought to tether the two Republicans. On Tuesday, Biden appeared at a McAuliffe campaign rally in Arlington, Virginia, where he repeatedly assailed his predecessor. Democrats, concerned about turnout, are betting that Trump can still energize their base.
Biden won Virginia by 10 points last November, but polls show the race in a dead-heat in the final stretch after McAuliffe had previously held a consistent lead.
One can only imagine how news of the “tele-rally” landed at Youngkin Headquarters. Trump making the election Trump-centric is exactly what they did not want in the mix of the final weekend’s news coverage. One can easily imagine the jubilation that ensued at McAuliffe Headquarters when they heard the news. Trump making the election Trump-centric makes their anti-Trump messaging more “salient.”
Trump, of course, doesn’t care. If Youngkin wins, he’ll say his “tele-rally” was decisive. If Youngkin loses, Trump will blame it on corrupt Democrats who stole the election, complicit media that covered up the imagined crime and Youngkin’s unwillingness to fully embrace Trump and the MAGA “agenda,” thus insuring his defeat.
The same post-Trump election dynamics are at work in New Jersey, except it’s a steeper climb for Republicans. New Jersey has become a “bluer” state over the years and is reliably Democratic in (most) statewide elections. The last Republican presidential candidate to win the state was George H.W. Bush in 1988. The last time the state elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate was in 1972 (Clifford Case). The only good news (for Republicans) in this otherwise grim history is Chris Christie, who served as governor from 2010 to 2018.
Tump avoids New Jersey for this very reason. He knows a doomed enterprise when he sees one. Perversely, this has enabled the GOP gubernatorial candidate, former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, to elide the “Trump issue” and campaign exclusively on “local issues.” Meaning: taxes. Ciattarelli has risen in the polls accordingly, causing Governor Murphy to inject the “Trump issue” back into the race, via an avalanche of “Beat Trump (again)” television advertisements.
One last trip to the well. It will probably work. It won’t work nearly as well as it did in 2017, when Murphy was first elected.
You can see where this is going. The salience of the Democratic Party’s “Beat Trump (again)” messaging is beginning to fade. The downdraft of the Biden presidency (on Democrats) is becoming apparent. Nationalization of American politics is slowly but surely becoming “Biden-centric” and less “Trump-centric.” Virgina and New Jersey will tell us something about how much less.
The question thus becomes: do the Democrats have a post-Trump message? Not really. “Build Back Better” has become a metaphor for ineptitude. Afghanistan became a metaphor for feckless incompetence. The killer is immigration. The notion that the US Government is considering payments of $450,000 per person affected by Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy in 2018 is, for a substantial majority of voters, beyond belief.
No Democrat facing a tough race, either in a “battleground” state or a “swing district,” wants any part of it. The $450,000 check was and is the last straw. If you’re a Democratic candidate in one of those battleground states or swing districts, it’s every man and woman for himself/herself. The future of Biden-centric politics for Democrats is creating distance from it.